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Crescent Moon (Chapter 2)

Tallient promised there'd be an airline ticket and a check waiting at O'Hare. He was as good as his word.

In the meantime, I looked him up on the Internet and remembered why his name was familiar. He wasn't Bill Gates, but he was close.

Tallient had invented a widget for computer modems and become a gazillionaire. At least he could afford me.

After an accident several years ago had turned him into a recluse, he'd become fascinated with cryptozoology. Interestingly enough, details on his accident were nonexistent, leaving me to wonder if Tallient had used his tech skills to ensure a little privacy. I couldn't blame him.

Heat slapped me in the face as soon as I walked out of Louis Armstrong International Airport Mid-October and the temperature had to be in the midnineties. No wonder the wolves had long ago fled New Orleans.

Along with the plane ticket and the check, Frank, as he'd insisted I call him, had provided a rental car, a hotel room on Bourbon Street, and the name and address of a swamp guide.

"I could get used to this," I said as the agent handed me the keys to a Lexus.

Shortly thereafter I checked into the hotel and tossed my bag on the bed. I'd have the luxury of running water and sheets only until I found a base of operations. I couldn't look for a cryptid from town. I needed to be right where the action was at all hours of the day or night. Once I found such a place, I'd have my camping equipment shipped south.

I wandered to a set of French doors, which led to a patio. Under the heated sheen of the sun, the rot showed –  sidewalks cracking, buildings crumbling, homeless people begging coins from the tourists.

One of the bizarre things about Bourbon Street, and there were a lot of them, was how a very nice hotel, like this one, could have a view straight into a strip joint on the opposite side of the street.

Two women danced on top of the bar. When they began to do more than dance, and the milling crowd began to cheer, I turned away from the spectacle. I wasn't a prude, but I preferred my sex in private and in the dark.

Or I had back when I'd had sex. Since Simon, there'd been no one, and I hadn't cared, had barely noticed. But : alone in a hotel room on a street that advertised sex twenty-four hours a day, I felt both deprived and depraved. Hiring myself a swamp guide seemed like a good distraction.

I did an Internet search on the address provided by Frank, then drove out of the French Quarter to the interstate, over Lake Pontchartrain, and into Slidell – an interesting combination of commuter suburb and Victorian brick houses. I didn't have time to enjoy the contrast. I wanted the guide issue settled so I could get to work.

I headed past every fast-food joint and franchise restaurant I knew and some I didn't. Just beyond a strip mall, I took a left, trolling by new houses complete with Big Wheels in the driveways and swimming pools in the backyards.

These gave way to older and older residences, then mobile homes, and finally shacks. One more turn and bam – there was the swamp. No wonder I'd heard reports of alligators in people's yards. What did they expect, putting a backyard near an alligator?

I shut off the motor, and silence pressed down on me. The weight of a cell phone in my pocket was reassuring. I could always call… someone.

Climbing out of the Lexus, I thanked Frank in absentia. Whenever I was forced into any vehicle smaller than a midsize four-door, I felt as if I were driving a clown car.

My mother, also quite tall, was an annoyingly slim woman with ice in her veins and hair as dark as her soul. Though she'd had no patience for fairy tales, she'd insisted I was a changeling. Where I'd gotten light green eyes, bright red hair, and an intense desire to play softball no one seemed to know. My appearance had marked me as an out- sider, even before my behavior had branded me the same.

Damp heat brushed my face along with the scent of rotting vegetation and brackish water. My eyes searched the gloom for something. Anything. Though my watch insisted I had a good hour of daylight left, the thick cover of ancient oaks shrouded me in chilly shadow.

I saw nothing but a dock and a tributary that disappeared around a bend. Across the water, hundreds of cypress trees dripped Spanish moss into the swamp grass.

"Hello?" I reached into my pocket and pulled out the note. "Adam Ruelle?"

The only answer was a thick splash, which halted my stride down the dock. How fast could an alligator travel on land?

Not as fast as I could. But what if that hadn't been an alligator?

Wolves are quick, as are big cats, and when dealing with new or undiscovered animals, anything could happen.

I took a deep breath. I might have been raised soft, but before Simon and I started spending so much time in the field we'd taken self-defense classes. You couldn't sleep under the stars in a dozen different states and not run into trouble sooner or later.

However, knowing how to disable a man who outweighed me by fifty pounds wasn't going to do me much good with a wild animal. What had I been thinking to come here alone, without a gun?

I snorted. I didn't own a gun.

Slowly I backed toward land, keeping my eyes on the flowing water. The muted splashing came closer and closer. I should make a run for it, but I hated to turn my back on whatever lurked in the depths of the lily pad-strewn tributary.

I heard a rustle that wasn't a fish, wasn't even water. More like the whisper of weeds, the snap of a twig. Slowly I lifted my gaze to the far shore.

A single flower perched atop a waving stalk, the shade of a flame against the dewy blue-green backdrop, and the tall grass swished closed behind a body.

Could have been anything, or anyone.

"Except for the tail," I murmured.

Bushy. Black. I tilted my head. Canine? Or feline?

I walked to the edge of the dock to get a better look at what had already disappeared. When water splashed across my shoes, I started, then slipped.

I was falling, my arms pinwheeling, my gaze focused, horrified, on the eight-foot alligator, jaws wide and waiting. Someone grabbed me and hauled backward. My heels banged loudly against the wooden slats of the dock, and the alligator let out an annoyed hiss.

I expected to be released once my feet touched dirt; instead, my savior, my captor, held on tight.

"Who're you?" His voice rasped, as if he rarely spoke, and carried both the cadence of the South and a touch of France. I'd never heard another like it

"D-d-diana," I managed, despite a significant lack of breath and a near-painful increase in my heart rate. "Diana Malone."

There. I sounded cool, calm, in control, even though I wasn't.

"I need a swamp guide," I continued.

"No guide here."

"I was told there was."

"You were told wrong. Take an airboat tour down de way."

Cajun, I realized as I strained to understand the words past the sexy accent.

Sexy? What in hell was wrong with me? I couldn't even see his face. Guess I had a thing for accents.

I tried to recall what I knew about the culture. It wasn't much. The Cajuns, originally Acadians, had come to Louisiana from France by way of Canada. Most had settled west of New Orleans, become farmers and fishermen, but that didn't mean a few hadn't migrated closer to the Crescent City.

"Those folks will even let you hold a baby alligator," he murmured.

I shivered, remembering how close I'd come to an alligator holding me – and that hadn't looked like a baby.

"No," I managed. "I need – "

His chin bumped my head; I could have sworn he was smelling my hair. I tensed, trying to remember what I'd been taught to get out of this situation, but nothing came to mind.

He was taller, though not by much, and definitely stronger. With one arm he held me so tightly I couldn't move. I wondered what the other arm was doing until I felt his palm skim up my thigh.

"Hey!"

"Woman alone shouldn't come here," he whispered. "You might see't'ings you should not"

"Like what?"

Silence settled over us, broken only by the hum of the bugs skimming across the water. I could have sworn I heard a laugh. However, when he spoke, no humor colored his voice.

"Curious cats should be careful."

"Was that a threat?"

"An observation, cher."

Cher? I hadn't laid eyes on his face, and he was calling me dear? Talk about balls. Or maybe I shouldn't

Twisting, I tried to get free, or at least see him. He tightened the steel band he used for an arm, and I couldn't breathe. My breasts – not large, but not bad – jiggled against his wrist. Something stirred against my backside before he released me with a shove.

By the time I'd caught my balance and whirled around, he'd escaped into the cover of the trees, moving with a grace that reminded me of the ABCs I'd been thinking of when he arrived.

His white T-shirt stood out in the encroaching night like a flare. The sleeves had been hacked off in deference to the heat, or maybe to reveal tanned, honed arms. Khaki pants hung on slim hips; he wasn't wearing any shoes. Dark, shaggy hair sifted across his shoulders. I still couldn't see his face.

"Who are you?" I whispered.

He didn't answer, instead lighting a cigarette, cupping the match in such a way as to keep the glow from reaching anything but tobacco. A bronze bracelet, the same shade as his skin, encircled his wrist. I'd never cared for jewelry on men, but on him the adornment only seemed to emphasize his masculinity.

"Seen any wolves?" I asked.

He took a deep drag, as if he hadn't a care in the world, or an appointment in tins century. Nevertheless, I sensed a wary interest.

"Maybe a black coyote?" I pressed.

The very thought excited me. A black coyote just might get me that Ph.D.

"How about a big cat?" I continued when he did nothing but take another drag. "Cougar?"

He blew smoke through his nose. "No wolves this far south."

"Coyotes?"

"Got 'em now. Brought in to hunt nutria rats."

I'd read about those. Large rodents that resembled beavers but with a ratlike tail. I hoped the coyotes were winning.

"Cats?" I asked again. "What about bears?"

"Bobcat. A few bears. Don't see 'em much."

I was constantly amazed at how easy it was for creatures to hide in their native habitat.

"I've heard there've been disappearances. Tales of a wolf."

"There will always be tales."

"Where there's smoke there's fire," I pointed out.

His cigarette flared red on one end as he drew on the other. "You a cop?"

"Scientist."

Saying I was a cryptozoologist only confused people.

He grunted and tossed the butt to the ground. The resulting hiss revealed he'd hit water.

"Can you guide me?" I stepped forward. "Do you know Adam Ruelle?"

"No."

His voice was mesmerizing. I wanted to keep him talking – forever.

A mighty splash was followed by a thud on the dock. I spun around, remembering there were more wild animals in the swamp than furry ones, but there was nothing there.

Just as there was nothing when I turned back to the trees – no man, no beast

Hell, I couldn't even find the cigarette butt

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